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Tennis captures MIAA tournament and team titles

Heather VanHoegarden | Friday, May 14, 2004

On the Saint Mary’s tennis team, there are no individual standouts – there is one team that stands out. As a result, the Saint Mary’s tennis team has been named The Observer’s 2003-04 Outstanding Team of the Year.From the beginning, there was no doubt this team would be competitive. They won the 2003 MIAA Tournament and returned four key members from that team.So it came to be a little surprise when the Belles won the MIAA Tournament title for the fourth straight year to go along with the 2004 regular season title.It was a close race to the finish, as the Belles entered the tournament tied with Albion and Calvin for the league title, which is a combination of regular season and tournament results.”This year the competition was a lot tougher,” No. 4 singles player Kris Spriggle said. “Their players have more experience, and the teams are tougher.”But at the tournament, the Belles came through, winning singles championships at No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 singles. They also earned a second- place finish in No. 3 doubles, and took fourth in No. 1 doubles and third in No. 3 doubles. These victories were enough to propel the Belles to 79.5 points, one point ahead of second-place Albion.”It was incredible to win by one point,” senior Jeannie Knish said. “There was no point we thought we had it in the bag.”But Knish was just one of many Belles to perform well at the tournament. Sophomore Kristen Palombo won her second straight No. 2 singles title, in addition to finishing second at No. 3 doubles with freshman partner Grace Gordon. Senior and two-time captain Kaitlin Cutler won her third straight MIAA title at No. 3 singles to go along with a third place finish at No. 2 doubles with fellow senior Spriggle.Spriggle also won singles, taking the No. 4 title, for her third straight.”It meant a lot, especially for the three seniors,” Spriggle said. “It was a great way to go out. We really enjoyed the season.”Rounding out the lineup was Knish, who took third at No. 1 singles and also earned fourth at No. 1 doubles with sophomore Kate Bowler who played in her first MIAA Tournament. It was a team effort that spurned the Belles to the title.”We really pulled together as a team,” Spriggle said. “We had the best team as a whole, because we did the little things.”Palombo earned second-team All-MIAA honors, the second straight year she has done so.But despite the help of the underclassmen, the seniors led the way.”They are going to be sorely missed,” coach Dee Stevenson said. “They were certainly leaders.”Senior LeadershipCutler, Knish and Spriggle were the anchors of a team that had seen much success over the past four years.”We’ve shown the underclassmen what you can do at Saint Mary’s,” Spriggle said. “It’s possible to do anything, you just have to pull the others with you.”Spriggle was able to end her career on a win after a disappointing loss early in the season. After winning three MIAA singles titles and one doubles title going into 2004, Spriggle lost to Calvin the weekend before the MIAA Tournament in the last home match of the year – and her career.”I was very upset after the loss,” she said. “It was a match that you know you should have won. The wind was terrible, and for whatever reason I just wasn’t able to win.”But she rebounded at the MIAA Tournament, defeating Calvin to win the individual title, the fourth of her career.”As a senior, you feel it’s a leadership thing to pull through with a ‘W’ in the tournament,” Spriggle said. “I just tried to step it up.”Meanwhile, Knish was busy earning first team All-MIAA honors. She finished third at No. 1 singles, while earning fourth at No. 1 doubles. Knish finished her career after winning two MIAA singles championships (No. 2 in 2002, No. 3 in 2001), and being named first team all-conference three times. She helped push the Belles to the thrilling first-place finish.”It was incredible,” Knish said. “It was so exciting to win the whole thing.”Cutler rounded out the three seniors, winning a championship at No. 3 singles. It marked the third consecutive title at singles (No. 3 in 2003 and 2002, No. 3 in 2001). She also took third at No. 2 doubles, teaming up with Spriggle after winning two doubles championships in the past two years. She was also named second team All-MIAA for the third straight year.For these three, the fourth MIAA Tournament title in as many years was certainly special. “They put an emphasis on winning the conference and get up for the conference matches,” Stevenson said of her seniors.But even more special may have been the regular season team title, as the Belles lost last year by one point to Albion.”We were a little worried going into the tournament, but we were able to pull through,” Spriggle said. “It was sweet because we lost to them last year – that made it even sweeter.”So now these seniors leave a young team after winning four MIAA Tournaments in as many years, and three regular season team titles in that same span.”We have set the pathway for many seasons to come,” Spriggle said.Setting an example These seniors have left a team that has known nothing but success over the past four years. But they didn’t just leave the underclassmen to learn the hard way.”The seniors showed next year’s captains how to be a captain and how to be a leader,” Stevenson said.Cutler was a two-time captain, and Spriggle and Knish both played for four years. But despite her leadership title, Cutler was not the only leader on the team.”Even though [Cutler] was a captain, the others took leadership roles even though they weren’t captains,” Stevenson said.They led by example. According to Stevenson, when the Belles would play, he never had to worry about Cutler and Spriggle. Instead, he would bank on their points counting toward the team score before the match began – they were just that good. “Kaitlin [Cutler] and Kris [Spriggle] both won conference singles for four years,” Stevenson said. “They were always dependable to win their point. It was one less thing to worry about.”But Stevenson will miss more than just the leadership these seniors provide on the tennis courts.”We’re going to miss them, not just for their tennis, but we’re going to miss them as individuals,” he said. “They’re like my daughters. I try to treat them that way. I’m going to miss them as people.”